A startling statistic pegging Montana as the state with the lowest rate of immunizations for young children is the subject of a new public service ad campaign by local health groups set to roll out next month.

The campaign, "Dead Last," will debut in August and feature print ads, radio spots, billboards and movie theater previews. It is an effort by the Gallatin City-County Health Department, Community Health Partners and Bozeman Deaconess Clinic to encourage parents to get their kids immunized, said Matt Kelley, health department officer.

According to 2008 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures, the most current data available, Montana has the worst rate of immunizations for children 19 to 35 months, Kelley said.

Only about 59 percent of kids in that age group, born between January 2005 and June 2007, had received all of the shots recommended by the CDC, including vaccines for diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps, hepatitis B and chickenpox.

Idaho was ranked 49th in the nation, with a 60 percent immunization rate. Massachusetts, Louisiana and Ohio performed the best in the study, with 82 percent of their children fully immunized in 2008.

The national average was 76.1 percent.

Unofficial figures put Gallatin County's immunization rate at about 70 percent, but county breakdowns are not included in the CDC's report, Kelley said.

Kelley said Montana's poor standing poses not only a greater risk for kids who aren't immunized against these diseases, but for the greater community as well.

He cited a June 23 New York Times article, which reported that five infants in California had recently died of pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough. The state has since declared a pertussis epidemic, with 910 confirmed cases, potentially the largest outbreak in 50 years.

"There is no reason this can't happen in Montana or Gallatin County," Kelley said.

The health department has received reports of at least two pertussis cases among school-age children in the past year, Kelley said. The cases were isolated and nonfatal, and are not considered an outbreak, he said.

But they are here.

"They haven't gone away," he said. "We're holding them at bay with vaccines."

There are no hard facts on why Montanans don't get their children vaccinated as often as people in other states. health officials can only speculate.

"Geography, poverty, perhaps a (lack of) understanding of the immunizations," said Laurie Francis, CEO of Community Health Partners, which provides affordable health care services in Bozeman, Belgrade and Livingston.

Francis said getting all of CHP's young patients fully immunized is priority.

"I think this data is important, because it will help us mobilize to improve immunization rates," Francis said.

The state is also actively working to improve Montana's standing nationally, said Jim Murphy, chief of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services' communicable diseases bureau. This includes an effort to keep the state immunization registry updated, which means working with counties to improve their reporting systems.

"Not every county looks badly, when you look at individual county data," Murphy said. "In some counties, it may be a resource issue; either they're not taking the time or they don't have the staff to notify children to come in. We're trying to step up that area."

Murphy said the state is also working on an ad campaign, as well as outreach in daycares and private clinics. But when it comes to figuring out how to get more children vaccinated, a lot of the heavy lifting falls to the counties.

He encouraged parents to seek out accurate information about vaccine safety, either by contacting the health department or healthcare providers.

"We understand that parents have questions about vaccine safety, and they have questions about whether they need to protect against diseases they don't hear much about anymore," Murphy said.

"Unfortunately for us, we're trying to compete with sources of information that aren't very accurate," he said. "The alternative (to vaccines) is not good, the alternative being diseases that are easily preventable."

The Gallatin City-County Health Department provides all of the CDC recommended vaccines and will work with people who are underinsured or have no health insurance, Kelley said.

For more information, call 582-3100.

Lauren Russell can be reached at lrussell@dailychronicle.com or 582-2635.



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